Natalie pushed the stroller along Jonson Street toward the stalls of the weekly farmers’ market, going slowly over the cracks and bumps, the huge bicycle wheels bouncing as she detoured out into the street to avoid the bulky twisted root of an ancient Australian eucalyptus tree that had buckled the pavement. It was just past seven, and the sun hadn’t been up long enough to burn the fog out of the winter air. Olivia was barely asleep after a fitful night, and Nat whispered for intervention from the gods any time she heard an approaching car. She shivered in her tank top and running tights as she passed the surf shops, organic groceries, and cafés, most still closed this early in the morning.
They’d been living in Byron for two months now, dragged away from Sydney by Charlie’s hard won painting residency at the Southern Cross Art Collective. He’d applied for the grant three years running and had finally gotten in, so of course they had to come. It was a brilliant opportunity, a year of funded work, and she really did believe in what people were doing here, getting back to basics, getting in touch with art, taking care of the earth, but just two months in she’d begun to stifle in the tiny town. She wanted to put on a cocktail dress, ride the train into the city and meet Tania and Nicole for drinks. They’d tried to plan a weekend trip back to Sydney, but as much as the fellowship was a career changer, the stipend was near poverty wages, so they were having to be content with a year away from home.
Another unseasonable cold front was predicted for the evening, dropping the tropical climate to near freezing, but she was still dressed as she always was, ready with her standard comeback about being capable enough to manage her own body temperature regardless of climate change. That morning Charlie had mentioned again that it was cold outside, and she should consider wearing something more than what amounted to a glorified bathing suit. But she’d worked hard to get back into shape post pregnancy, and it was bloody Australia after all. Even if the polar ice cap was melting and tornadoes were tearing through Queensland, it was supposed to be warm. In her own experience, it only got a little chilly and foggy now and then, and as long as she could still see palm trees, she wasn’t buying winter boots. Charlie never seemed to be too worried about the hippie women who hula-hooped topless on the square most Saturdays.
The market was already crowded, and she wheeled the stroller around the clusters of people setting up stalls and unloading vegetables, weaving toward the table that she’d rented for the last several weeks. A group of women, hair in braids, long skirts and home sewn blouses, cleared a path for her as she approached.
Rose, the tallest one, sold fresh herbs and flowers at the stall next to her. “Nat, darling. That thing is huge. A real bulldozer. Have you got triplets in there?”
“Oh, yeah. Gigantic, right?” She laughed. “But it really is just Olivia in there. She seems to sleep well in this, and I need to be able to move around at the market.”
The woman next to Rose carried a baby as well, wrapped in an unbleached hemp bag slung over her torso like a backwards knapsack. “They sleep far better this way, I think,” she said,” and I find it quite easy to move, she’s held so close she becomes a part of you. You might give it a try.” She bent down and nuzzled the bald head that stuck up from the bumpy sack.
Nat nodded. “Maybe when she’s a bit less fussy,” she said.
Rose smiled and touched the other woman’s shoulder. “Yes, yes, Katrina, we should all hang our children in hemp bags so we can recreate the womb, but you’ve got to admit that thing is killing your back.”
Katrina rolled her eyes and made a mumbling sound. “If you’re okay with leaving that sort of carbon footprint, I suppose I can’t stop you.”
“Well I’ve got both of you beat on that score, then. No kids for me at all.” Rose ran her hand down her flat belly. Katrina shook her head and sighed.
Nat honestly hated the stroller. The Tyke-Trekker, it was called, a gift from her father. The photo on the box was of a fit young woman running a marathon, gripping the stroller and pushing it ahead of her like a farmer’s plow. “So you don’t lose your momentum,” he’d written. It was truly gigantic, unwieldy, but Olivia hated being swaddled in the hippie bag, and would scream to no end until she was let out of it, so Nat had begun trundling around town pushing her three wheeled chariot up and down the narrow streets of Byron ignoring the sneers of these local women who somehow managed to jog and swim and do yoga all while balancing their children on hip and breast. Scoldings like Katrina’s were common. Carbon footprint, wasted materials, bonding with the child. She would smile and nod, mention it was made from recycled metal, all while biting her tongue.
Katrina and her clan moved on now with promises of coffee during the week. Rose stayed behind. “Don’t let the Environment Police get to you,” she said to Nat as she lifted another bushel of violets to her table. “They can only do so much damage before they forget what they were scolding you about and run off to another protest or self-actualization workshop. If they cross the town line they turn into clouds of sandalwood smoke and vanish.”
Rose’s table was set now, her fresh herbs and flowers displayed beautifully, their colors rich and inviting, the aromas earthy and sweet.
“You want me to hold Livvy while you arrange things?”
“Oh, she’s fine. I want her to get as much sleep as she can as long as she’s down.”
“I’ve put aside that fresh basil you asked for.”
“Thanks,” Nat said. She pulled a tangle of colored glass, beads and shells from her bag and began draping the necklaces and bracelets across her table. She reached back in the bag. “Dammit. I’ve forgotten half my stuff. I’ll have to run home.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll watch her.”
She kissed Olivia’s cheek, grabbed her jewelry bag and started back toward home, jogging now that she was free of the buggy, breathing deeply, taking in the fresh ocean air.
The house was a rented cottage hidden in a grove of palm trees a few streets back from the shore. It was built in the traditional Queenslander style, two stories, the main living area and bedrooms all on the second floor, garage and work space below, slatted windows on all sides to catch the sea breezes. It had come furnished with a ragtag assembly of thrift store chairs and a worn sofa, but they’d made it more inviting by hanging some of Charlie’s paintings. His latest work hung over the non-functioning fireplace, an abstract in dark greens and blues. Nat climbed the steep outdoor staircase to the deck and fumbled with her keys. Through the sliding glass doors that led into the living room she saw a man standing at the bookshelf, wearing only underwear, his back to her, rummaging through titles and holding a pair of pants. She screamed. He dropped the book he had in his hand and turned, as startled as she was. It was her husband’s friend Tim, the head of the art collective. He lived in the hills above the beach in a cabin, off the grid, as Charlie kept threatening they’d one day do. No connection to council electricity or running water. Just solar power and a well. A true follower of the movement.
He waved as she rolled the heavy door open. “Shit, Tim, you startled me,” she said, looking toward the ceiling to avoid staring.
“Oh, Nat, so sorry. I didn’t think you’d be home so soon.”
She recognized the pants he was holding as her husband’s. “Is Charlie with you then?” she asked. What the hell was going on?
Tim was a bit of a guru around town. People talked about him as someone who embodied the movement, and he looked well aware of his role. His greying hair was pulled into a ponytail, and he wore chambray and linen in muted colors. She’d often thought he was a little touchy feely with Charlie. “Did you guys come down from the studio for a coffee or something?”
“Nope, Charlie’s over at the studio. I just stopped in to take a nap. This fog has kept my solar panels from working, and I froze last night, didn’t get any sleep. They should heat up as soon as the sun gets a little higher, but in the meantime Charlie offered your sofa. Didn’t mean to scare you. You don’t mind do you?”
“What?” She shook her head. “No, Tim, I guess I don’t mind. Have a lie down if you like, and if you’re hungry there’s a salad and some chicken in the fridge.” She paused. “But how did you get in?” She regretted saying she didn’t mind. She was always trying to be too nice.
“Oh, Charlie gave me a spare key weeks ago. With these crazy storms I thought it might be good to have a place to warm up. I haven’t needed it until today. ”
Charlie hadn’t mentioned this to her. “Well it is freezing out there,” she said staring, not sure what to say next. She glanced at the door to their bedroom through to the unmade bed and pile of laundry she’d left since last night. Had she left it open when she left?
“We’re a bit more communal than you’re probably used to in Sydney. I didn’t mean to startle you, but I was going to take a nap if that’s all right. Run the heater for a moment.”
“Well, I’m not going to be here, but…”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” he said.
“All right then.” She stood smiling, not moving. He followed her gaze to the trousers in his hand, and laughed. “They were slung over the back of the sofa and I didn’t want to wrinkle them. Was just going to hang them up for him when you came in.”
“Oh no, that’s fine. I thought you might have borrowed them or something. He’s got dozens of pairs. Take them if you need them.” She gestured toward them awkwardly.
“I’ve got my own pants, Nat.” he said, folding them carefully.
“Yes, of course you do.” She realized how ridiculous she must sound. He wasn’t so bad.
He looked at her expectantly. “Well then. I guess I’ll lie down,” he said.
“Yes, I’ll just get what I came for. She went into the bedroom and grabbed the forgotten bag of bracelets from where she’d left it at the foot of the bed, relaxing a bit now that she understood the situation. She still found herself eyeing the room though, looking suspiciously at the wardrobe and chest of drawers. Was everything as she’d left it? Honestly, with Olivia to manage, things were often in disarray. How could she know?
“Do you have a blanket in there, Nat?” Tim called from the living room.
She jumped at the sound of his voice. “Yes. I’ll grab one.”
She opened the closet door and reached to the top shelf for one of the blankets they didn’t use. The smell of their Sydney house came down with it – lavender floor polish and cedar wood. For just a moment she held it to her face and breathed deeply, seeing the view of Mosman Bay from her old kitchen window, then walked back out to the living room.
Tim had stretched out on the couch, his arms folded behind his head, his semi-naked body defined and fit from so much yoga. He grinned at her and held his hand out for the blanket. She leaned forward, dropped it on his torso, and took a step back.
“Thanks. You’re very kind,” he said, and shook the blanket out over his legs. “And I’m sorry for scaring you.” He began tucking the blanket edges in around him. “I forget you’re not used to the way we do things up here. We’re all friends. Everyone’s an open book. People come and go from each other’s houses. I hope I didn’t seem too forward.” He patted the cushion. “Sit down with me for a moment. Relax.”
She felt her stomach clench. “No. No. I understand. It’s fine. I’ve got to get back to the market, though. Olivia’s with Rose.” She stood staring, still not sure what to do.
“Of course. I shouldn’t keep you. But get more involved. We’d all love to see you more. Come to my class this weekend. You’ll be happy you did.”
She nodded and stepped out onto the deck pulling the door shut behind her, then jogged down the steps two at a time. On her way back to the market she rang Charlie’s number but he didn’t pick up. He always had it off when he was in the studio, had scolded her once even for being needy when she knew he was painting. Not wanting to sound like a paranoid idiot, she left some vague cheery message wishing him a good day and hung up.
That night for dinner she and Charlie had grilled barramundi that she’d bought at the market. At least the fish here was always fresh here, fresher than she was used to getting in Sydney. She gathered up the plates and cups from the rickety little coffee table that had come with the house, and walked toward the sink. “He said you told him to use the key,” she called over the noise of the running water. “He gave me a real fright. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Sorry. I should have,” Charlie pushed his glasses up on to his narrow long nose. He’d just gotten them, said his contacts were bothering him. “That cabin’s a creaky old thing and he doesn’t have heat. The storms this year are colder than usual. Climate change. He mentioned it the other day and I told him to duck in here if things got too chilly.”
“But isn’t he the one who chose to live off the grid? I would have thought this would be the perfect time to really prove his point by withstanding the cold.” It sounded mean. This wasn’t going as she’d rehearsed it.
“Come on, Nat. Be fair. Cold is cold. He’s all right.” He leaned back on the sofa and put his feet up, his runner’s legs still muscular even though he hadn’t managed to go for a jog with her since they had moved up.
“All right. I’ll try to be fair, but he had a pair of your pants in his hand. You’ve got to understand how strange that looked.” She walked back into the living room drying her hands on a towel. Olivia held her arms up to be taken out of her high chair.
Charlie grinned and shook his dark wavy hair. “Yeah, he told me you offered to give them to him. Honestly, Nat.”
“Well, he caught me by surprise,” she said, picking up Olivia and swaying back and forth, kissing the top of her head. “I came home to find a strange man in the house and you didn’t see fit to tell me? And he’s in his underwear and holding your pants. Frankly, for a second I wondered if you two had come home to have some sort of tryst.”
“You thought we were having sex?” His voice rose and he scowled a bit. “I wasn’t even here, right? And come on, Nat, even if I was gay. You think I’d get it on with Tim? The ponytailed mystic of Southern Cross? You’ve got to be joking. If I was going for a man I’d head down to the beach and pick up one of those hot surfie boys. The ones you admire so much.”
“Oh, that’s not fair. You know what I mean.” She sat down on the sofa and wiped Olivia’s face with the cloth. “What am I supposed to think in that moment? My mind jumped all over the place. I know you all adore him, but frankly it was a little fucking weird. You know he invited me to stay. Invited me, like it was his own house and I was the guest. And frankly it felt like he was inviting me to bed.”
“What? He said he suggested you relax before you went back to the market. Said you’re stressed out.”
“He patted the couch like I should come sit on his lap.”
“Well, he’s spent his life on beanbag chairs and hammocks. People have a different idea of personal space here. I think you’re overreacting. You’ve been fighting this place since we moved here.” He shook his head, and pushed his glasses up again.
“I haven’t really. They’re all so bloody humorless.”
“Humorless? I guess so, but harmless, definitely. Really, Nat. What’s he going to do, chant at you? He can get a little preachy, I’ll give you that,” he said, “but they all just really believe in things. This is a great opportunity for me. Can you please just try? I know he’s a bit of a wanker, but I’ve got to see this through. When I win the Archibald prize we can both tell him to shove that thinning ponytail up his ass.” He ruffled her hair, trying to get a laugh.
“I love you,” she said and kissed his cheek. He smelled of paint thinner, needed a shave.
“Maybe you should apologize to him. Laugh it off. For me?”
Pushing the Tyke-Trekker in front of her, she jogged down the narrow road through Skinners’ Shoot, where Tim’s cabin sat back from the road hidden by the trees. The storm had blown through in the night, and the flowers from the once blooming banana palms now made a purple carpet over the path. She parked the stroller on the rough timber porch and knocked on the front door. “Tim?” she called. No answer. She knocked again and yelled. “Tim!” She shaded her eyes and looked through the glass into the room. It was small but tidy, with beautiful dark wood walls. A stove and refrigerator in one corner next to a small round table, a sofa facing a brick fireplace, and a neatly made bed just to the left of it. Each wall was covered with paintings. Some were huge and abstract, others more realistic. Landscapes, seascapes, swirls of color. The effect was lovely. The painting over the fireplace looked like Charlie’s work. Had he painted something new she hadn’t seen? She turned the knob. It was unlocked. Of course it was. Open book. She walked in and stood in front of the fireplace. The painting was a surreal gray sea backed by a dense thicket of palmettos, birds swirling above the waves. It was beautiful. Charlie’s signature was visible in the bottom right corner, a large C followed by a squiggle that looked like water. She still didn’t understand how the rational, easy-going man she married went off and did this when everyone else went to work or school or whatever.
Above the bed, a life sized, hyper-masculine nude of Tim was hung. It was good work, but she shuddered at the tackiness of the thing, imagining the awkward modelling session, until she saw the same C and squiggle at the bottom, blending in with the grays and greens of the background, and froze. Charlie had painted it. She clenched the baby rattle she had in her hand, one she’d made herself, the sharp edges of the beads cutting into her flesh as she gripped it tighter and took in the scope of the painting. It was meticulous and sensual, gorgeous. He’d painted her nude once, a month after they’d started dating. This was even better than hers had been.
“Lying bastard,” she whispered.
On the dresser next to the bed there was an arrangement of polished rocks, seashells, an assortment of rings and bracelets, one that looked suspiciously like her own work, and a photo of him with short hair, wearing a tie, a woman by his side whom Nat had never seen before. She took a deep breath, clutched the rattle again, and swept her arm across the dresser, flinging everything across the bed and to the floor. She pulled out the drawers one by one and hurled them at the fireplace, smashing the cheap wood against the brick. “You bloody fucking bastard,” she said, her voice getting louder.
Olivia began to cry from where Nat had parked the stroller just inside the door, so Nat stopped yelling, walked over to the stroller to pick her up. She was wet. Nat lay her down on the bed, unfastened the diaper and pulled a clean one from her bag. Olivia giggled and Nat tickled her under her chin as she wiped and changed her.
She put Olivia back in the stroller, then took the urine soaked cloth and smeared it on Tim’s pillows, up and back, wringing it and shaking every last drop out, imagining Charlie’s head there next to him. When it yielded no more liquid she placed it at the foot of the bed. “Enjoy the smell,” she muttered, and walked back out to the porch pushing the stroller ahead of her, easing it down the steps gently, and pushed toward the path, picking her pace up as she distanced herself. “Bastard,” she said again, then looked down at Olivia. “Bastard.”
She jogged faster and faster, running for all she was worth through the banana palms and frangipanis, winding toward the sea, her mind leaping ahead, planning her next hours before she knew she would have to be at the station. Packing her things and Olivia’s would take no time at all really, and there’d be no furniture or kitchen things to bother with since the cottage came equipped. It was just a matter of speaking to him then. Saying it. She continued through the trees, pushing harder, finding her breath, synching her lungs with her legs as the scent of eucalyptus gave way to the smell of the sea, laughing as she realized she’d memorized the train schedules months ago.
She reached the first houses on the edge of town, still a few streets back from theirs, and stopped, panting. She looked in at Olivia, smiling, then pulled out her phone and scrolled through the icons, stopping when she saw Charlie’s grin. She held her finger over the dial key, hesitated. Face to face. It had to be. It should be anyway, but the southbound train left just before noon, and Charlie was at the studio, phone off as always.
Let him figure it out on his own then.
She dropped the phone into the stroller and Olivia grabbed at it. Yes, the packing would be easy enough. She pushed off again toward the house, singing to her daughter as she ran.
KENT QUANEY is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi Center for Writers where he was awarded the Joan Johnson prize for fiction. He also studied writing at the University of Sydney. His work has most recently appeared in Chelsea Station, riverSedge, and Polari. He lives in Laredo, Texas, where he teaches writing at Texas A&M International University.